A recent lawsuit in the Golden State has brought attention to an interesting, and mostly ignored, problem: California is simply too large of a state.
Home to more than one in ten Americans, the nation’s most populous state also has a relatively small state legislature. Even though entitled to 53 members of the U.S. House, it only has 40 state senators – and therefore is the only state where there are legislators who represent larger districts than those of members of Congress.
The situation is not much better in the lower house, the Assembly. There, each of the chamber’s 80 members represent almost half a million residents.
The size of California’s legislature was set in 1862, and hasn’t changed since. At the time, the entire state had a population of just 420,000. That’s fewer people than a single assembly district today. Nationwide, the average state representative serves just under 60,000 people; and the average state senator is just shy of 160,000 constituents.
California’s massive legislative districts have attracted the ire of several voters in the more rural and northern part of the state, who argue the arrangement denies them and other Californians effective local representation. Thus they have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to compel California to increase its number of state representatives and senators.
As sympathetic as its arguments are, the lawsuit is a long shot. There is no clear rule in the federal constitution that speaks to the size of state legislative districts or the number of legislators. Instead, the only principle enforced by federal courts is the “one man, one vote” doctrine that legislative districts must be approximately equal in population, as California’s districts are.
But the lawsuit raises an enticing possibility: Has the time come to add more stars to Old Glory by breaking up the union’s biggest states?
Splitting Up States
Most discussions about potential new states, focus on the longstanding desires of America’s two most populous non-state territories: The District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Statehood is a divisive question in Puerto Rico, however, and the status of the nation’s capital city raises complicated questions of sovereignty that could likely only be solved by constitutional amendment.
Creating new states out of existing ones, on the other hand, has a long history. The framers of the Constitution included a clause specifically allowing for it, with the consent of both Congress and the state or states concerned. Vermont, Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia were all carved out from existing states using this method.
Consent for West Virginia was, controversially, granted by the “restored” unionist government of Virginia during the height of the Civil War, but the legitimacy of that move has been long-settled. In each of the other cases, state legislatures responded to public demand by giving their consent, and Congress dutifully obliged. By exercise of democratic consent, America’s sovereign states can divide themselves, and sometimes they have.
Proposed movements to split existing states have a wide history; but not all such proposals have much chance of gaining traction. Adding a new member to the union requires not just the consent of the state being broken up, but also Congress, and Congress has usually had some broad principles in mind.
The first, and most important consideration, is population. As the United States expanded westward across the continent, Congress always required a minimum population before a territory could apply for statehood. Since becoming a state comes with two senators and at least one representative regardless of population, Congress is unlikely to ever approve a state less populous than the current 50th largest, Wyoming (585,501 as of 2016). This also happens to be reasonably close to the size of the average U.S. House district, which is just over 700,000.
That rules out most of America’s territories outside of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, since the largest, Guam, has just under 160,000 residents. It also makes unlikely proposals like Superior, to make a new state from the upper peninsula of Michigan, or splitting a state like Colorado, which ranks 22nd in population of the states. The resulting states simply would not have enough people to justify the Constitution’s minimum federal representation.
The Big Five
Because of this aversion to low-population states, it is probable that only the nation’s largest and most populous states would be eligible for partition. Those also happen to be the states were movements for partition have been strongest, and a serious topic of debate over the years.
The five most-populated states and their 2016 population are, in order: California (39 million), Texas (27 million), Florida (20 million), New York (19 million), and Illinois (12 million). All are good potential candidates to carve out newer, smaller states.
California already hosts the oldest and most persistent partition movement, the would-be “State of Jefferson” that aspires to encompass far-northern California as well as adjacent parts of southern Oregon. There is also a persistent split between the central part of the state, centered around the Bay Area, and southern California centered around Los Angeles.
A recent proposal to split California into six states ended up failing and folding, largely because six was too ambitious a number, and the proposed borders too arbitrary. A state split into the three parts, however (with the northernmost possibly picking up part of Oregon) would neatly follow the existing political and cultural divisions.
Jefferson already has a suitable name, and several counties in the region have approved of it in referendums. There are many potential options for naming the other two; but for simplicity’s sake let’s call them North California and South California. Alternately, geographical features like “Sierra” or “Mojave” could provide each with a fresh start and a distinct identity.
Texas is unique in a lot of ways, but one of the most unusual is an obscure bit of trivia tucked into the joint resolution annexing the then-independent Republic of Texas in 1845. In order to sweeten the deal, Congress offered its pre-approval to for Texas to split itself into as many as five states.
Whether or not that offer still stands is unclear and debated among constitutional scholars. Texas has seen many partition proposals, but none ultimately overcame the state’s uniquely strong sense of identity.
The sprawling state encompasses many distinct regions; but the most common proposals have centered around the southwest portion of the state nearest the Mexican border. After the Civil War, it was briefly proposed to create a state named Lincoln from the parts of Texas between the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, roughly dividing the state in half.
A similar modern proposal, could perhaps result in a state of Rio Grande, extending from Brownsville to El Paso, and with its capital in San Antonio. The result would leave the more predominately Latino and Democratic parts of the state, free to govern themselves without being dominated by the rest of Texas’s overwhelming Republican supermajority.
Florida is another state where the cultural and political divide is stark between two regions: the predominantly conservative and Republican northern half of the state, versus the more Hispanic and Democratic south centered around Miami.
The idea of division has attracted enough support to be endorsed by county legislators in Ft. Lauderdale, and a handful of state legislators. It’s less clear where the border would be drawn. Which side would get Orlando, Tampa, and Cape Canaveral?
Central Florida is a culturally mixed region, politically purple, and home to some of the state’s most famous and valuable assets. While residents of the conservative panhandle on the one hand, and liberal Miami on the other, might relish being free of the other, there is no clear dividing line between them. Where exactly to draw the border, would probably end up being a contentious, and potentially unsolvable question.
If a fair border could be agreed upon, America’s most famous swing state might instead become one reliably red state and one reliably blue state. A repeat of the 2000 election fiasco, where a few hundred votes decided the state and thus the presidency, would be very unlikely.
The Empire State has always housed two very distinct regions: the metropolis in and around New York City, and the rural bulk of the state’s landmass that has become known as Upstate New York.
On both sides of that divide, frustrations run high and proposals for a split have been persistent for decades. Upstaters chafe at the domination the city exercises by having the majority of the population, while residents of the five boroughs have little connection to places like Buffalo and Rochester.
If there is any metropolis that can make the case for its own statehood, it would be New York City’s eight million inhabitants. Extending that to include Long Island and the adjacent counties immediately north of the city, would push the population north of ten million.
Which half would get to keep the name “New York” could be debated, but to avoid confusion it would probably be best if that name stuck with the city that shares it. The rural rest of the state, perhaps picking a new name based on geography or the local Native American tribes, could govern itself without being overshadowed by the metropolitan neighbors. The state of Adirondack, or Mohawk, or Erie, or Hudson, could even put the question up to vote. After all, “upstate” would no longer work as a description.
Illinois suffers from a similar dynamic as New York: a single dominating metropolis at one end, split from the predominantly rural and politically conservative rest of the state. Chicago’s sense of identity is drastically distinct from the rest of Illinois, to the degree that the city’s distinctive flag is a much more common sight on its streets than Illinois’s banner.
Partition already has a degree of perennial support, with legislators from both Chicago and “downstate” introducing bills to that effect in the legislature. The political calculus is obvious: Democrats who dominate Chicago could firmly control any new state built around it, and Republicans consigned to permanent minority status in southern and central Illinois would instead have a solidly red state to govern.
It’s not just politics, of course. There is a real social and cultural divide between diverse and cosmopolitan Chicago, and the vast stretches of small towns and farmland that occupy the rest of Illinois.
A recent survey even found that Illinois was the only state where a majority of its residents said they would move to a different state if they could. They might just have that option, without having to move at all. Like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Illinois and Chicago could go through a velvet divorce that leaves both happier.
Two by two in the Senate
In the era before the Civil War, it was common practice to admit new free states and new slave states together in pairs, to maintain the precarious balance of power in the Senate. That is a practice that could be revived in the 21st Century, albeit in the much less troublesome context of partisan politics, instead of human bondage.
Past election results provide an easy and fairly reliable guide to guess the partisan tilt of any new state. Pairing likely-Republican and likely-Democratic states would be necessary to secure bipartisan buy-in at all levels of the decision, and solid majorities in favor in both the state and national legislatures.
The State of Jefferson, for example, would most likely give its two Senate seats as well as its electoral votes to the GOP. Splitting the rest of California in two, would produce two Democratic states from what had previously been one. Thus the net effect would be to add two Senators for both parties.
Florida currently has one Republican Senator and one Democratic Senator. A split state would, most likely, send two from each party, for a neutral net effect. This same calculations can be played out elsewhere. Two new Republican Senators from upstate New York, could balance two new Democratic Senators from southwest Texas.
That kind of partisan horse-trading might sound unseemly, but it could be the necessary grease to arrive at a good policy result: state governments that are more representative, effectively providing localized laboratories of democracy. More states means more experimentation, and a stronger sense of federalism across the country.
There’s nothing magic about 50 states and 100 senators. It’s more than time for us to reopen the political debate about state sizes. Admitting six new states into the union, for the first time since 1959, would solve a multitude of state problems without upsetting our current national political balance.
(Image of American flag with 56 stars by Hellerick, plus images from the 6 Californias initiative and a representation of the political leanings of the proposed new states.)